Health minister hints at more advanced-care paramedics

New Brunswick’s health minister says the province wants to bring in more advanced-care paramedics as it and the two health authorities restructure services and staff in several rural hospitals. 

“Advanced-care paramedics are part of the ongoing, forward movement here,” Ted Flemming said. 

The recent announcement that the province will be cutting overnight emergency room services in six hospitals unleashed a wave of anxiety and anger from residents concerned with timely access to emergency care.

The service gap, which starts March 11, also troubles many MLAs, including the leader of the PC-friendly People’s Alliance.

Speaking on the CBC New Brunswick Political Panel, Kris Austin said he’s concerned about extending the distance to emergency rooms for some New Brunswickers.

Austin, an ambulance service hawk, questioned how the extra distance will impact an already strained ambulance-service provider. 

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin says he wants to see more paramedics, including more advanced-care paramedics, added following the emergency room service cuts. (CBC)

He wants the province to hire more advanced-care paramedics — “emergency rooms on wheels,” as he put it — and increase the number of paramedics in the affected areas. 

There are 70 primary-care paramedics in the province who have advanced-care training but aren’t able to use all of their skills.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous, even without this announcement, but when you add this announcement to it,” Austin said.

“If you’re going to close those emergency rooms, you have to ensure that paramedics are going to get there not 45 minutes later but in a reasonable amount of time.”

Flemming, who was also on the panel, agreed with Austin.

“They need to be practising to their scope of practice. We’re in the process of doing that now and transitioning into that as part of this.”

But that was about the extent of common ground the four panellists found.

Changes are ‘unacceptable,’ Liberal says

Unacceptable, disingenuous and ridiculous were among the terms used by opposition MLAs criticizing the provincial government and the two health authorities’ response to a shortage of doctors and nurses.

Flemming said he wasn’t surprised by the adverse reaction many had to the reforms, which will also see 120 acute-care beds at the hospitals converted into long-term-care beds.

The decision sparked protests and political strife — even within the governing Progressive Conservative party — that may lead to a snap election.

Health Minister Ted Flemming announced the health-care changes during a press conference Tuesday morning. (CBC)

Facing the panellists from the opposition parties, Flemming balked at the Liberal pledge to reinstate 24-hour service. 

Liberal MLA J.C. D’Amours said the service cuts were “unacceptable” and put people’s lives at risk. He said it’s one thing for the opposition to be critical, but there are “medical people who are saying it makes no sense, even those who are living in these areas.”

The Edmundston-Madawaska Centre MLA said the province needs to do a better job of training and retaining health-care professionals.

But when asked how the Liberals would address the issue, D’Amours was light on specifics, saying they would keep the ERs open and hire more nurse practitioners — the latter being something the PCs are in the process of doing

Flemming said the changes are “a necessity.”

“You can’t reinstate a lack of people, a lack of human resources,” he told the panel. 

Staffing shortages

Fleming said 35 per cent of physicians and 40 per cent of both nurses and lab technicians will reach retirement age within the next five years. Staffing shortages led to 23 service interruptions at New Brunswick hospitals last year.

It was announced Thursday a doctor shortage forced the Sackville Memorial Hospital emergency room to close from 4 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Saturday.

The reforms, which start March 11, are an attempt to cope with staffing shortages plaguing the provincial health-care system. Closing the emergency rooms from midnight to 8 a.m. will allow doctors and new nurse practitioners to see more patients in the daytime, the province has said.

The affected ERs saw an average of five visits a night, and most of them were not emergencies, according to the two health authorities.

Lack of consultation

D’Amours was joined by Green MLA Mitton in saying the government failed to properly consult — or even attempt to consult — other MLAs, health-care professionals and the public.

Mitton, who described the ER cuts as an attack on rural communities, said the PCs should have struck an all-party legislative committee to investigate the proposal and offer input.

The Memramcook-Tantramar MLA, who represents Sackville, one of the affected communities, said the reforms were not raised by Horizon officials during recent consultations with the town about the future of health-care in the community. 

Green MLA Mitton says the government did not properly consult the public before announcing the health-care reforms. (CBC)

Mitton said the talks were “disingenuous.”

“I think it’s important that when there are decisions being made about our communities, about our health-care and about our hospitals that we are part of the conversation,” Mitton said.

The six hospitals affected are the Sussex Health Centre, the Sackville Memorial Hospital, Hotel- of St. Joseph in Perth-Andover, Stella-Maris-de-Kent Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Enfant- Hospital in Caraquet and the Grand Falls General Hospital.

The health authorities will also increase addiction and mental health services in those facilities.

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